Laying the building blocks to future-proof Singapore's digital economy

Khairani Afifi Noordin
Khairani Afifi Noordin1/6/2022 12:0 PM GMT+08  • 11 min read
Laying the building blocks to future-proof Singapore's digital economy
How is Microsoft helping the city build a resilient and digitally inclusive ecosystem that will continue propelling growth?
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The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted Singaporean companies very unevenly. Some larger enterprises with the resources to cushion the crisis and had prior technology investments were able to weather the storm and continue to scale, while many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) were struggling to keep afloat.

Microsoft Singapore’s managing director Kevin Wo says SMEs were already faced with growth challenges prior to the pandemic, especially when it comes to pressures surrounding margins, cash flow and market expansion. He adds: “The Covid-19 outbreak did not make it easier. Even if these companies are provided with resources — either in the form of grants or otherwise — they are not able to absorb them as they do not have the talent pool to drive the [necessary] changes.”

This is why it is important for SMEs to future-proof their businesses to stay resilient in the face of crisis. By doing so, they can also ride on and contribute to the growth of Singapore’s digital economy, which is projected to reach a gross merchandise value of US$27 billion ($36 billion) by 2025, according to the e-Conomy SEA 2021 report by Google, Temasek and Bain & Company.

There are several questions SMEs, and even larger businesses, need to think about as they reimagine their business for the future. For instance, they should assess the relevance of their current business models and figure out if they have missed any new customer segments, advises Wo. This will ensure that they are always looking out for new revenue-generating opportunities.

Another question to consider is whether they are prepared to let go of what they have. “Sometimes, what made them successful before may not help them to be more successful moving forward. Are they prepared to let go and think about new ways of doing things? I think this is a major challenge for many enterprises,” says Wo.

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He also encourages businesses to ensure they have the right culture — one that cultivates innovation within the organisation. “Imagine if everyone is only focusing on what they are doing now instead of thinking about the future, and not willing to work across teams to think about how to solve problems. This will cause them to miss out on bringing the best resources together to drive change.”

“[Having a data-driven culture, for instance,] can help companies improve their business performance and find new revenue streams. This is an important element of the growth strategy so we urge companies to think about it as one of the ways to future-proof their business,” he adds.

Helping businesses establish trust

Microsoft opened its doors in Singapore over 30 years ago, as its headquarters for Asia Pacific. Since then, the company has been at the forefront of digital transformation, exercising its role in ensuring organisations in the region are prepared for the challenges brought about by globalisation and technology advancements.

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Beyond its functions to develop growth strategies for its commercial and cloud business, Microsoft is also responsible for creating economic value and societal impact in the markets it operates in, says Wo.

“Whatever we do here in Singapore is very much grounded on our mission, which is to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more. On the back of that, we try to drive national impact — both from the aspect of creating economic values, jobs, partnerships and accelerating digital transformation; as well as realising societal impact and how we can use technology to build a more inclusive society.”

Pivoting around that mission statement, Microsoft aligns its investments and focuses on four key aspirations: Trust, partnerships, skill-building and digital inclusivity.

Trust is essential in any business, but especially technology, Wo adds. “With that in mind, it is important that Microsoft as a tech company continues to establish trust in the work that we do, products we make, the way we operate in the market as well as our processes.”

To drive trust in the cybersecurity space, Microsoft has a long partnership with the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA) to support cybersafe initiatives and programmes. “Our intention is to make sure we continue to co-develop programmes with CSA to increase the awareness and adoption of cybersecurity among the employers and the community,” Wo explains.

Besides its involvement in cybersecurity, Microsoft also sits on the Advisory Council on the Ethical Use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Data. The council is one of three structured, interlinked initiatives to support the engagement of stakeholders to collaboratively develop a trusted and vibrant AI ecosystem and position Singapore as a leading hub for AI.

As part of the council, they are involved in shaping the Singapore government’s thinking around how AI should be governed and what the technology processes should look like in order to support digital transformation, adds Wo.

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Similarly, Microsoft is part of the Veritas consortium, which is led by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). Launched in 2019, the Veritas initiative aims to enable financial institutions to evaluate their AI and data analytics implementations against the principles of fairness, ethics, accountability and transparency.

He says: “As we know, a lot of financial institutions leverage technology to improve their customer engagement. But at the same time, we also have to ensure the technology is used fairly and that the confidentiality of our consumers are protected. I think Microsoft is playing a very important role — we are the creators of this technology, so it is imperative that we also make sure that the partners who are building innovation on those technologies are equipped with the right understanding and principles.”

Fast-tracking digital transformation through partnerships

Partnerships are a way to mature and grow with the nation to accelerate digital transformation. “When we talk about partnerships, we are not only talking about our ecosystem of partners — it includes governments, academia, research institutions and others,” Wo adds.

For example, Microsoft is working with the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to help SMEs use digital technologies and build stronger digital capabilities to seize growth opportunities in the digital economy. This is done via the SMEs Go Digital programme.

The partnership is even more important during the height of the pandemic as SMEs struggled with the impact of the outbreak restrictions, he adds. Over the last 18 months, Microsoft has been closely working with IMDA to help SMEs with business continuity.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has also established a partnership with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology and Industrial Internet of Things Innovation Platform to accelerate the digital transformation of Singapore’s manufacturing sector.

The partnership aims to help local manufacturers transform their factory operations through the adoption of AI and Industrial Internet of Things technologies. By doing so, they will be able to leverage data to scale up and optimise their operations.

Leave no one behind

Since the digital economy requires new skills and jobs, closing the skills gap is a top priority in Singapore. To help the Republic do so, Microsoft has worked with IMDA, Digital Industry Singapore and SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) as well as other partners to upskill, place and fill the demand for tech-enabled jobs for Singaporeans as part of the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package.

This is done by involving both the supply and demand side, says Wo. “When it comes to employability, it is important for us to connect the dots between the supply side and the demand side. This is done by helping job seekers and mid-career professionals to access the plenty of grants available to them, whether they are from government agencies or otherwise. Then, we bridge the supply to the demand, [which are] the potential employers that may include our partners or customers.”

For smaller companies, the problem with upskilling has a lot to do with the inability to conduct training due to the struggle for business survival. Working with the respective agencies like SSG, Microsoft works on helping SMEs build good workplace practices in both human resources and infrastructure, which has helped SMEs upskill their staff while ensuring business continuity. In the pursuit of building a resilient society, it is also important to ensure that the future is digitally inclusive. While Singapore has done a great job at this front — having maintained the top spot for digital inclusivity among 82 countries in the world, according to the Roland Berger Digital Inclusion Index 2020 — a continuous effort is needed to narrow the digital divide.

“As we continue to pivot to the future, we must remember that there are a lot of people who still need help participating in the digital economy. These include people with disabilities (PWDs), silver citizens as well as females in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields,” says Wo.

In the area of silver citizens, Microsoft supported IMDA’s Virtual Digital Clinics, which provide seniors with one-to-one guidance on the basic features of commonly used mobile apps or phone settings, during the “circuit breaker” period. The clinics were conducted by volunteers over the Microsoft Teams video platform.

Beyond that, Microsoft is working with SPD and SG Enable under the Digital Enablement Programme to equip PWDs with digital skills that can help enhance their independent living and improve their employment opportunities.

With more than one billion PWDs in the world, disability-inclusive employment can lead to up to 7% rise in gross domestic product in Asia Pacific through increased economic productivity, notes the United Nations. He adds: “We believe they’re the untapped talents in the market. In fact, after we enabled some of the PWDs with basic e-commerce skills, they were able to secure jobs with our partners while others went on to build their own e-commerce businesses. It is very encouraging to see this happening.”

To further help PWDs, Microsoft has also launched the Microsoft Enabler Programme, which pioneers disability-inclusive workplaces across Asia Pacific by removing barriers for a more diverse workforce. As of April last year, 16 PWDs have secured full-time roles, mentorships and training opportunities through the programme, while more than 110 PWDs were being matched to 65 potential roles with Microsoft’s partners.

Investing in new areas

To ensure businesses can keep up with trends that will shape the digital economy, Microsoft is also continuously exploring and investing in new areas, even futuristic ones like Web 3.0 and the metaverse (a virtual reality version of the Internet).

Decentralised data networks, AI, edge computing and many other emerging technologies have led the world to Web 3.0, the next wave of the Internet. While there is no standard definition to Web 3.0, it is commonly described as the age of eliminating the big middlemen of the Internet and giving back the power to the individuals.

In Web 3.0, digital information is set to exist in space, integrated and inseparable from the physical world, notes Deloitte Insights. This could potentially improve intuitive interactions and increase our ability to deliver highly contextualised experiences for businesses and consumers alike.

As for the metaverse, it generally refers to living as avatars in 3D virtual environments that mirror our real world. However, the metaverse envisioned by many companies goes beyond that — it is expected to enable us to participate in business and economic activities the same way we do in the physical world.

We may be years away from realising such a reality but Microsoft is already preparing for such a future. It plans to roll out Mesh, a collaborative platform for virtual experiences, in Microsoft Teams in 2022, enabling businesses to build immersive spaces or metaverses. Users can take their avatars into those spaces to mix and mingle, collaborate on projects, and even experience serendipitous encounters that spark innovation.

Wo says: “Our success is pivoted on how our customers and partners are leveraging our technology to drive business outcomes. Whether it is Web 3.0 or the metaverse, we know that we will be in the game. More importantly, we want to make sure that those technologies are used responsibly, and they are democratised so that a wider range of communities and businesses can reap the benefits.”

Photo: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore

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